The Netherlands shattered Azerbaijan’s dreams of home glory as the ‘Oranjes’ claimed a dramatic 3-2 victory (20-25, 25-19, 25-19, 25-27, 15-12) to vie for their second continental title in history. After their spectacular collective effort, which silenced an almost sell-out crowd in attendance at the iconic National Gymnastics Arena, the Oranjes have at least equalled their result from the 2015 edition of the European Championship – where they won silver – and on Sunday will take on Serbia in an effort to claim their second European crown. As for Azerbaijan, the hosts have to be content to play for bronze – and on Sunday, they will try to make amends for this setback by taking what would be their first-ever European Championship medal.
Azerbaijan and the Netherlands went for a repeat of a matchup they had contested some four months ago – the major highlight of a World Championship qualifier held in Baku, even though not at the National Gymnastics Arena, where the hosts had stormed to a 3-0 victory to book their ticket to Japan.
To follow the trend set with all previous matches played by the home side at this year’s EuroVolley, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr Ilham Aliyev, paid a visit to the arena to witness what was history in the making. Azerbaijan contested their second-ever semi-final of a European Championship and the hosts were obviously hoping not to suffer the same setback they had to accept in 2005 – when they lost 0-3 to eventual silver medal winners Italy.
Azerbaijan opened the game with an impressive 6-2 run – thus reversing the trend of a rusty start, which they had to all of their previous matches – but the Netherlands soon responded with their star player Lonneke Slöetjes finding her way into the game (9-8). The ‘Oranjes’ eventually levelled the score at 12-all on a block by Robin de Kruijf before Azerbaijan resumed their march to storm to a five-point lead at 19-14. Even though their run was not completely smooth, with the Netherlands trying to close in a couple of times, Azerbaijan eventually claimed the opening set on an ace by their superstar Polina Rahimova (25-20).
The Dutchwomen were obviously going to put up a fight – and so they did from the early stages of the second set (5-2) but their advantage was a short lived one with Natalya Mammadova providing something more for the home audience to cheer about as she moved the score to 8-8. The Netherlands relied on the depth of their roster in an effort to turn things around (17-12) and they succeeded in doing so – as they rallied to a 25-19 win.
Azerbaijan had only lost their second set in the tournament – that previously happened in their pool matchup with Germany – and the question at this stage was whether they would be able to regroup and find back their quality and consistency from earlier in the game. However, the hosts soon trailed 4-8 in the third set as the well-oiled Dutch machine was working like a Swiss clock before they came back strong with a run of three consecutive points. Rahimova sparked much enthusiasm among the local fans as another powerful spike of her made it 9-9 and the level of noise rose even further after an ace by Kseniya Poznyak contributed to Azerbaijan’s first lead in the set. However, Dutch captain Maret Balkestein-Grothues flipped the charts around while standing behind the service line as the ‘Oranjes’ scored seven in a row and despite closing in at 16-18, soon Azerbaijan found themselves trailing in the match for the first time in the tournament following a Dutch 25-19 win.
The strength of the Dutch collective was obvious also in the fourth set (14-7) where the ‘Oranjes’ celebrated with more joy and passion every single rally they scored – whereas the morale went dramatically down on the Azerbaijani side of the net, as Rahimova was almost unable to score any point. The hosts were with their back against the wall at 10-17 but they found a way to close in at 22-22 with an incredible run as the fans were literally standing on their feet. Buijs secured a Dutch match point at 24-23 before she went to serve – and the ball went out of bounds. Rahimova scored the next point and Azerbaijan were back in the game after a drama of a rally (27-25).
The Netherlands regrouped to lead 8-6 at the side switch of the tiebreak and all they had to do was to side-out until the end of the set – still quite a difficult task with the Azerbaijani audience pushing their team as much as they could. Buijs stretched the Dutch lead to three points at 12-9 before Slöetjes piled up four match points, the Oranjes missed out on two, and de Kruijf eventually finished it all off to silence the crowd (15-12).
Polina Rahimova, opposite hitter of Azerbaijan: “We are obviously very disappointed. The Netherlands showed very fast Volleyball and we tried to play better as the match progressed. We came back in the fourth set and we fought for the tiebreak. Unfortunately, our opponent was better in the end. We lost but we continue our journey in this competition, hoping to win at least bronze.”
Natalya Mammadova, outside hitter of Azerbaijan: “Our team did not play that well in block and serve. The Netherlands, on the other hand, showed a good performance especially in defence and attack. We tried to make some changes to our initial tactics and eventually won the fourth set. Unfortunately, in the tiebreak we made some mistakes and ended up losing. Now we start preparing for the bronze medal game – but of course we hoped to play the big final.”
Kirsten Knip, libero of the Netherlands: “We said to each other we have to fight and really go crazy, because they have such hard hitters and they are really tall, so it’s not going to be easy, plus we already lost two times before, so we really wanted a revenge and this was a perfect opportunity for us. Then we made it into a five-setter – I do not know why. It is good that we won, I’m so relieved.”
Lonneke Slöetjes, opposite hitter of the Netherlands: “I don’t know what happened [at the end of the 4th set], we couldn’t score and they kept scoring everything. I think we only hit the block a couple of times, we missed some serves and made our own errors. Azerbaijan did a very good job by fighting back and the audience were really behind them, like a seventh player on the court. You could feel this wall of sounds all around you. I am very proud that we kept our calm in the fifth set, even though the crowd was going crazy and Azerbaijan played really well.”
Jamie Morrison, head coach of the Netherlands: “[Referring to the final section of the fourth set] I think back about what I could have done better, about what the team could have done better, but I told them at the time-out that that’s over and that now we start at 0-0 in the next set. They did a good job – we just reset and became the team that we were at the beginning of the fourth. We just remembered who we were and went back to being that team. And that team is pretty good.”